Sunday 3 April 2011

Archaeology, the PAS and Treasure TV

You heard it here first folks. Now it is in the newspapers: Jonathan Owen, 'Anger as TV show endorses metal-detecting 'plunderers'; Archaeologists criticise British Museum for opening archive to new series', Independent on Sunday, Sunday, 3 April 2011.
Diana Friendship-Taylor, the chair of Rescue, otherwise known as the British Archaeological Trust, said: "We are, frankly, astonished, that the British Museum is prepared to lend its considerable weight to the furtherance of a method of historical inquiry which belongs in the distant past, and which has as much relevance to the practice of modern archaeology as the use of the cranial trepannation has to modern medicine. The apparent endorsement of this destructive activity by a body such as the British Museum will do nothing to lessen its impact on our buried archaeological heritage." [...] While metal-detector enthusiasts have unearthed some of Britain's most valuable historical discoveries, their actions can create "collateral damage" to the sites they plunder, preventing serious archaeologists from studying artefacts in situ...
highlighting the difference it seems between serious archaeologists and frivolous ones (the ones who care about protecting sites in situ from damage and those who shrug their shoulders and say: "come, show us the goodies"). Nice to see the P-word again in a British news story about "UK MD".
The British Museum last night dismissed concerns about the TV series. "The museum has made it clear that its co-operation is dependent on the issues involved in the discovery of objects by the public – especially metal detectorists – being dealt with in a responsible way," it said.
Which means what, precisely? "Don't-do-it"-responsible? Or "show-us-the-goodies-you-take"-responsible? There is a huge difference when we are talking about ARCHAEOLOGICAL (and not goodie-fondling) outreach. RESCUE apparently has "also questioned the effectiveness of the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme,[...]. Rescue claims it does little to stop artefacts vanishing into private collections or being sold on the internet". Good for RESCUE. Let's add the word "most" there, and would be true, but of course that's not the point RESCUE should be depicted as making (who knows what they actually said to the news?), the point is not so much what happens to the already decontextualised artefacts, its the trashing of the sites and assemblages they come from which is the most important thing. This is about conservation of archaeological information in the richness of its variety and complexity and not just what happens to a bunch of crusty coins ripped out of a hole in the ground. That the "Independent's" journalist does not get this is also of course the fault of the PAS who for well over a decade have been outreaching to the public, and passing on loads and loads of press releases to the media. Somehow this message does not seem to have emerged from them, does it? And if the press does not get the message, what hope is there that their readers will be any the better informed?

I also wonder whether the RESCUE spokesperson really said that she believes "metal detecting" is an outdated "method of historical inquiry", since of course it is nothing of the kind. It is artefact collecting, pure and simple, its no more a method of historical enquiry as collecting phonecards or postcards and stamps with pictures of historical sites on them.

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